In November of last year, a historic and deadly fire swept through thousands of acres in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the town of Gatlinburg.
The fire, which torched thousands of homes, businesses, and land, caused the evacuation of at 14,000 residents and claimed at least 14 lives. The cause? Two local teens playing with matches while hiking in the Chimney Top area. That day, the two boys were throwing matching to the side of the trail and left behind the embers that would turn into a raging fire which quickly spread to lower elevations. The teen boys failed to consider the tragic effects of their careless and foolish act.
Our text in James 3 gives us another kind of fire that has the potential to lead to incredible destruction in our lives. James is still dealing with the practical outworking of one’s faith, but now as it relates to the issue of controlling our tongue. He reminds us,
“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell.”
James has already given some attention to faith as it applies to our works (2.14-26), and now he turns his attention in chapter 3 on how faith applies to our words. As Daniel Wallace notes, “Lest his audience think that an obedient faith is obedient only in what it does (2:14-26), James follows this up: “faith is also obedient in what it says” (3:1-12).
The truth is, when one becomes a follower of Christ, his behavior is transformed. The new person in Christ not only has new patterns of behavior, but he also has a new mouth and a new tongue with new speech as well. As we mature (are perfected), we should notice our conversation is also changing.
James makes three major points in these verses:
First, we prove our maturity by what we say. He says in verse 2, if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. In other words, the greatest evidence that our faith is genuine is in the fruit that comes from our lips. James has already said back in chapter 1, verse 26, ”If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.” This is not to say that our behavior doesn’t matter or our faith is only about our words. Rather, it means that if we are able to control what we say, we can discipline every other area in our lives. Two analogies highlight the influence which our tongue has in the spiritual direction of our lives. Like a bit in a horse’s mouth or a rudder on a ship, the tongue wields enormous influence to build up or destroy. James concludes his first point by saying our tongue promises (boasts) more than it typically can deliver. “It’s small, but it boasts of great things” (v.5). I recall someone saying it like this, “Don’t let your mouth write checks that your body can’t cash.”
Second, we ourselves can never tame our tongue. James gives a strong warning here to ‘watch our words’ since they are the source of so much evil in our lives. In verse 6 he writes,”the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.” How ironic that we can tame wild animals but none of us can tame the tongue. Its tendency is to readily have something unkind, uncaring, unloving, and unthinking to say. The venom of our words can be absolutely toxic to those who hear them. He offers two more analogies (water and fruit) to make his case that our new mouth should not have both evil and good coming from it. “It is just as inconsistent for the tongue to praise God and curse men as it is for fresh and salt water to come from the same spring or the same tree to produce two different kinds of fruit” (3:9-12). James then concludes by saying that our new nature in Christ with our new tongue and our new voice should never use the language of our old man, before we knew Christ. “…these things ought not to be so” (11b).
Third, we need heavenly wisdom to cultivate Godly speech. Because the human tendency is to boast, James asks,”Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom” (v.13). Our conduct is more than what we do; it’s also reflected in what we say. But if we can never tame the tongue, how do we get beyond our problem? Simply put, we need wisdom from above. And when we come to Christ, who is himself the Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1.30), we can, through humility, learn to speak his language. Wisdom is simply “know how”, and if we ask, he will let us know how and when we should talk.“For the LORD grants wisdom! From his mouth come knowledge and understanding” (Proverbs 2.6).
- W. Tozer and J. I. Packer have defined wisdom as follows:
“In the Holy Scriptures wisdom, when used of God and good men, always carries a strong moral connotation. It is conceived as being pure, loving, and good. Wisdom, among other things, is the ability to devise perfect ends and to achieve those ends by the most perfect means. It sees the end from the beginning, so there can be no need to guess or conjecture. Wisdom sees everything in focus, each in proper relation to all, and is thus able to work toward predestined goals with flawless precision.”
“Wisdom is the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it. Wisdom is, in fact, the practical side of moral goodness. As such, it is found in its fullness only in God. He alone is naturally and entirely and invariably wise.”
Now, apply that to your words. James includes this teaching as a critical component of Christian maturity. He knew what Jesus had already said, “The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” (Luke 6.45). What we think is thus a reflection of what is in our hearts (cf. 3.14). If you listen to what comes out of your mouth, you’ll have a decent idea of what’s in your heart. More and more today, we think that our words do not matter as Christians. We can say what we want, and Jesus will ‘cut us some slack’. Yet, his perspective is not like ours. He also said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words, you will be condemned.”
James reminds us here that we all struggle with what we say. We need God’s divine wisdom to transform our tongues. It’s interesting to think that James, being the Lord’s brother, never heard Jesus say anything that was unloving, unkind, or untrue. That’s amazing for any family! He had a perfect model that only spoke life to those around him. But there is hope for us too. When Jesus changes a life, it is a total transformation. It includes not only what we do but also what we say. Is your tongue getting a transformation these days? Or do you just let the words flow without thinking? Let Jesus do his work there too, and your life will become more attractive to those around you. Even more, you will reflect his glory. The world needs not only to see Jesus in you, but to hear him as well.